We’re delighted that this week’s post is from a guest author, Chris Abbott. We met at the Family Tree Live event last year and he’s been good enough to put this blog post together. In it, he draws upon his family’s experiences of railway work and railway accidents; particularly nice is that his father was able to help him with this. They record not one but two accidents – one staff and one passenger, including one of the most infamous crashes of the twentieth century. We’re grateful to Chris, his father, and all of his family for this post.
As always, if you have an idea for a guest post, do get in touch with us; we’re always pleased to discuss ideas with you.
I come from a family with many generations of railway employees, starting with my great-grandfather William Abbott, a wheel examiner and carriage examiner, and extending to my brother (a driver), my nephew (in the ticket office) and various other first and second cousins, some of them now the fifth generation of railway employees.
It is William’s son, however, my grandfather Percy John Abbott, who suffered an accident on the railway in the 1930s. Sadly, I never knew my grandfather as he died at a very young age in the 1940s, but my father, now 93, has told me all about him and his accident.
Percy Abbott was born in Charlton Horethorne, Somerset, like many of his agricultural labouring forbears, but by 1894 work on the farms was harder to come by. However, Percy had seen how his father had prospered on the railway at Templecombe, and by the age of 16 we find him in the 1911 Census as a Railway Engine Cleaner at Salisbury.
The First World War then intervened and Percy enlisted in the Wiltshire Regiment in 1914, staying in the Forces till 1918. By 1920 he was back on the railway as a Fireman, and also bringing up a young family with his wife Elsie at their home in Macklin Road, Salisbury. They eventually had 5 boys and 2 girls, and my Dad, Stan Abbott (the second oldest) remembers how exciting it was to have a father in the railway.
“My Dad was building a scale model engine King Arthur class that he intended to run on a length of line so that we could ride on it when it steamed up. It was built to scale. Also around this time Dad used to take us down to Southampton to tour the luxury steam liners. Being on the railway he was able to get a permit from the shipping agents. We enjoyed the trips down to the boiler rooms.”
“During the mid-thirties my Dad used to take us to London and we saw all the sights: Billingsgate, Covent Garden, Smithfield etc, also all the mainline railway terminals. It helped with my trainspotting which was very popular at that time. We also visited all the museums. Dad was a mainline driver on the Southern Railway based at the bottom of Cherry Orchard Lane. I often went on the footplate of an engine, he took me shunting in the yard when he could, great fun.”
Some of these memories were less happy however, especially when the accident occurred.
“Dad had a very bad accident while driving a train, he was a fireman at the time. He was stoking the fire with a long poker. As they entered a bridge his hand was hit, smashing and losing one finger and damaging the others. The whole of his hand was covered with stitches and he was off work for months.”
I remember hearing about this accident when I was young, and it has entered into family lore, especially when travelling by train and being warned not to lean out of the window (not possible these days of course). My father was born in 1926 so it seems likely that the accident happened in the mid-thirties. Sadly, Percy Abbott, who later became a driver, had a heart attack and died in 1943 at the age of only 48.
He wasn’t, however, the first member of the family to be involved in an accident; his father, William Abbott, played a role in the rescue of passengers after the 1906 boat train crash at Salisbury station. We knew nothing about this till very recently; my great-grandfather appears not to have spoken about it and it was only when a book was published on the centenary of the event (Voices from the Boat Train, Moody & Fleming, 2006) that the family found out about it.
The boat train crashed as it was going too fast when it reached the bend outside Salisbury station, and ended up hanging over the parapet of the Fisherton Street railway bridge. In an interview in 2006 for the Salisbury Journal, Frogg Moody, one of the authors, said “Bill Abbott, who was carriage inspector of Salisbury yard, knew how the lighting worked and crawled in turning off the gas and oil reservoirs to prevent the risk of fire.” This must have been an incredibly brave thing to do but as a carriage inspector he would have known what needed to be done.
The official report of the accident also includes evidence from William Abbott, who said: “I have 26 years service with the company. I was on duty at Salisbury station on the night of the 30th June. I was at the London end of the island platform, when the boat express passed through the station. I watched it pass. I have seen the express pass through on about six other occasions. On this night the boat train ran through at a considerably faster speed than is usually the case. I have not seen a boat train pass through the station so fast as this one did. I heard the engine whistle from the west end of the yard, and am certain that it was the engine of the boat train. The sound appeared to be west of the west end signal box.”
Dr Chris Abbott is Emeritus Reader at King’s College London. Since retiring he has developed his interests in theatre research and plans to do more work on his family history (Somerset and Dorset mainly, ag labs, railways and people in service).